Preview: Muslim-American voices

Kate Shellnutt by Kate Shellnutt

With college behind them, today’s Muslim-Americans tiptoe toward adulthood and find themselves in a position different from their immigrant parents and even those born in the United States decades before them.

This generation, now in their 20s, grew up amid Muslim student organizations, contemporary Islamic teachings and the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.  They’re more educated and more likely to identify with Islam than older Muslim-Americans, according to research by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

They represent the spectrum of Muslim practice and piety; many are activists and artists working toward a country where their community, and all marginalized communities, are treated with respect and given a place to express themselves.

The steps they take to relate to their religion resonate across the Muslim community, the country’s youngest-skewing religious group, with 29 percent of its population under the age of 30.  One by one, these Muslims, so self-aware of their dual identity, so willing to talk about their experience, offer up a picture of 21st-century Islam in America.

ahlam1Ahlam Said, Chicago

At 23, Ahlam works for the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, or IMAN, a community-building organization on Chicago’s Southwest Side.  Born in Yemen, but raised outside Dallas, she came to understand religion, culture and community as a student at DePaul University.  She now sees it as her duty to work towards change, through social programming and the arts.  Motivated by the message of Islam and accountability to God, she stands proud of her identity, saying, “I never try to victimize myself because I refuse to be in this victim mentality.  I refuse.  If people don’t understand, educate them.” (Photo by Kate Shellnutt, News21.)

Hasan Dudar, Washington, D.C.

Hasan, a student at the University of Toledo in Ohio, was unexpectedly matched with a Muslim advocacy group, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, through a Washington D.C. internship program. Having attended Catholic high school, Hasan wasn’t involved in Muslim groups in Toledo, but with Palestinian and Lebanese parents, “always felt the presence of the East,” in his Arabic-speaking home.  Now, after working with the organization this summer, he’s more open to connecting with the greater Muslim community.  “Knowing that there are Muslim organizations out there that are committed to the issues showed me that there is a way for me to get involved,” he said.

Imran Malik, Princeton, N.J. medstud-horiz

A 25-year-old Pakistani-American, Imran returned to his parents’ home country to attend medical school, leaving New Jersey just a few years after the September 11 terrorist strikes.  “It was a combination of me wanting to get out of America and wanting to see Pakistan on my own terms.”  Witnessing the spectrum of religious practice there, he was able to come to his own conclusions about Islam, realizing he was an atheist.  He returned from Pakistan last year and now travels across the country with a Muslim punk band called the Kominas, trying to show Muslim-Americans that they can express themselves in unconventional ways. “This is the most important thing I can be doing with my life right now,” he said.  (Photo by Tara Haelle, News21.)

Juveria Syed, Brampton, Ontario

Juveria, 21, is budding interior designer and Web developer for a Young Muslim site, YMonline, which hosts message boards and events for Muslim girls.  She left her New Jersey hometown three years ago for what she sees as a more favorable environment for religious pluralism: Canada.  A Pakistani-American who grew up in New Jersey, she said she faced discrimination at a young age and says, “When I started 9th grade, a few days later the 9/11 attacks happened and that was the most difficult time for me. I also wear hijab so people would call me a terrorist and other horrible things like that.  It was hard to explain to non-Muslims and especially other teenagers that all Muslims aren’t terrorists.”

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In the weeks ahead, I’ll post fuller stories on these engaging, open, colorful young Muslims and their work in the world.

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